Does complexity theory offer anything to the understanding of children in need?

Publication Date14 October 2009
Date14 October 2009
AuthorJohn Rowlands
SubjectEducation,Health & social care,Sociology
This article discusses how complexity theory is being used to understand social phenomena.
It notes that published articles tend to discuss these ideas in relation to social care without
quantification. It demonstrates that there is quantitative evidence that one aspect of
complexity thinking, ‘self-organising criticality’, could be at work in generating children in
need in England as defined by the Children Act 1989. The article is based on a secondary
analysis of data on the weekly costs of children in need derived from the Children in Need
Census 2005. Data were provided by the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It
concludes that the distribution of the frequency of weekly cost of children in need shows that
a mechanism involving self-organising criticality may indeed be at work in creating children in
need served by local authorities.
Key words
children in need; costs; complexity; self-organising criticality; power law
as a conceptual framework for understanding
phenomena involving the interaction of multiple
agents that produce unpredictable outcomes and
which could not be dealt with using reductive,
linear analytical methods. This article suggests that
the population of known children in need could
be such a phenomenon and offers evidence to
support this idea.
Historical perspective
Since their inception, local authority children’s
social care services have responded to families and
children in difficulties that threaten family integrity
This article is an exploration of the relevance of
an aspect of complexity theory to children in need
known to children’s social care services. It presents
evidence about the distribution of the frequency
of weekly cost per child of children in need in
England and draws on complexity theory to
propose an explanation. Its purpose is to provide
further evidence in the discussion and add to our
understanding of the broad nature of the pressure
of children in need on English local authority
social services’ functions. Complexity theory
developed in the second half of the 20th century
Does complexity theory
offer anything to the
understanding of children
in need?
John Rowlands
Visiting Fellow, Institute of Education, Thomas Coram Research Unit, University of London, UK

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